I confess. I used to disdain the phrase soft eyes.
Back in the days, when I taught rapport-building skills, the term popped up in one of my training manuals. Soft eyes just sounded kinda cheesy to me. You know, softly gazing at someone. Like a scene from a sappy Hollywood movie.
That’s not what soft eyes is, of course.
You know folks who have been drilled in how to give eye contact, right? The ones who don’t do it well? They stare at you intently. Often intensely. Their gaze is unwaveringly focused on you. They really really look you in the eye. Their eyes seem to somehow never blink. And you simply want to recoil. Run. Run as fast from them as you can. Have them leave you the heck alone.
That’s bad eye contact. The opposite of soft eyes.
A little bit of context. The term soft eyes has been around for a long while. Hunters use this phrase to describe their skill in animal tracking. It is generally believed to have Native American origins. NLP (the study of neuro-linguistic programming) uses the term to describe a relaxed way of being present. In the HBO series “The Wire,” an entire episode was named Soft Eyes. In it, the character Bunk Moreland uses the phrase in conversation. He suggests that when we look with soft eyes we’re able to see more than what we see at first glance.
Nice. Let’s distinguish between 3 different ways of viewing what’s in front of us.
- Peripheral vision:
Most of us are not great at it. It’s an acquired muscle-memory skill. When we practice peripheral vision we approach our field of vision with the widest possible span and try to catch all that is on the edges of this span. I think of it as the old Cinemascope view of the world. We scope deep and wide.
The risk: We get constantly distracted by all we see and don’t notice what’s actually right in front of us. Not unlike a state of steady social media overwhelm. More, always more.
- Foveal vision:
Consider it the art of the laser focus. We are able to bring our attention to the tiniest detail that others will miss. My friends Pedro and Frank, both gemologists, immediately come to mind. Gemologists are trained to notice, and focus on, near imperceptible matter. The sort of stuff I tend to not see even after it is pointed out to me
The risk: We zero in on a seductive detail and miss significant details beyond our point of focus or significant changes in our surroundings. We have stereotypical tunnel vision
- Soft eyes:
It’s the effortless combination of both peripheral and foveal vision. When we focus on a person or an object, we do so without straining. Our eye muscles stay relaxed. Our gaze is not hard or intense. It is soft. At the same time, we stay aware of our peripheral vision and see all that is present in the broadest field of view.
The risk: I don’t, pardon the pun, see any risk. I see only assets.
The benefits of looking at the world in front of us are in some ways obvious – and tremendous:
- More relaxed: Because the inherent tenet of soft eyes is that we don’t strain, it tends to lull us into a more relaxed way of looking at others and the world around us. It puts us AND others at ease because we’re not “trying so hard.” Folks who meditate liken it to being in a state of walking meditation, much of the time. An easy, conscious, aware way of moving through the world.
- More open: When we doggedly focus on one person or object, we inadvertently close ourselves off to the many subtle non-verbal signals that may be “talking” to us while we over-focus. Soft eyes keep us aware of these signals and, in turn, make it easier for us to adapt our behavior accordingly. We show up more “in tune” with our environment.
- Less self-talk:
I wish I had research data for this claim. The anecdotal evidence is powerful, and I trust that on a gut-level it makes sense. When I look at my surroundings with soft eyes I am powerfully in tune with the world in front of me WITHOUT trying too hard. This constant and effortless immersion with what I see pulls my focus outward, away from the sometimes incessant mind chatter we all know. The mind chatter dials down. Thanks to soft eyes, I am more present in the moment.
I have dreams and intentions for 2019. I am excited about them. And I know that everything will unfold with more grace and ease if I approach people and situations with soft eyes.
I claim 2019 as My Year of Soft Eyes.
I can’t think of any reason not to. Won’t you join me please?